Last Monday, I had the opportunity to talk, via Skype, with Paul Noonan of Bell X1 about their forthcoming album, ‘Chop Chop’. Our conversation was kind of a music nerd’s dream-come-true, with a sort of stream-of-consciousness feel as it wandered through the many thought-provoking aspects of the record. (Minor disclaimer: I have edited the transcript slightly, to avoid giving away too many details before the album’s much-anticipated release.)
Hey, Carrie, it’s Paul Noonan.
Hi, how are you?
I’m good, how are you?
I am good, I’m hanging in there. I’m catching you at the end of your day, I think.
You are, it is half past eight here, yeah. I’ve never done this on Skype before. Is this exciting, or is it sort of weird?
I’ve not done this before either, this is new for me, so we’ll see how it works out. I just have a few little questions for you about ‘Chop Chop’.
I guess we should maybe start with the title. It doesn’t really give anything away as far as what the songs are about.
I suppose not, no. It was a title we came up with a long time ago, before we started the record at all, and I suppose it was a mentality shift. We really wanted to do it quickly and not to think about it a whole lot and to sort of, um, to mine a little more instinct and intuition than maybe we’d done before and not sort of second-guess ourselves as much. And become better musicians as well, in terms of just getting stuff… I’ve often talked about this before, I’ve often sort of thought about musicians in, say, the Motown era and how wonderful they were and how quickly they made records because that’s what you had to do, and there was nothing sort of exceptional about it. The standards, I think, have really fallen as technology advanced and as it allowed you to sort of become lazier and lazier. Initially, actually, we wanted to make sort of two short albums, and call one ‘Chop’ and the other ‘Chop’ and then have some kind of a way of connecting them that they would become ‘Chop Chop’. The time from making a record to it actually getting out is often frustratingly long, and often you spend six months or so sitting on a record you’ve made and are burning to get out and play and to bring to people. And so we wanted, initially wanted, to make a record and put it out very quickly and then tour that, and then do that again. The records would be shorter, so they’d take a lot less time to make and we’d have sort of a more, I suppose, immediacy to putting them out. And then, we just, we kind of gave up on that idea because we…sort of evolved through demo-ing stuff into sort of a, what felt like a more substantial single album. We did make it very quickly, and did make it with that sense of, um, I suppose, not talking about things a whole lot, just playing them and communicating through that medium, which was pretty satisfying.
So, the album is finished, though…and it’s not being released until the end of June?
(laughs) Yeah, we are doing the ‘finish the record and then sit on it for months’. Yeah, um, we’ve wanted to record with Peter Katis for a long time, and we have mutual friends in the States who also know Thomas Bartlett, and we’ve known Thomas for quite a while now, so we’ve often talked about working together. He had worked with Peter a lot, sort of on days, you know here and there on various records that Peter had made, and we just got talking about the idea of all of us, you know the five of us, making a record, and it just so happened that everyone was available for only this sort of 3-week period in January, so we had to do it then and sort of get it done. So, yeah, that was very exciting, it was a bit of a blur because it was really…you know, we often take a lot longer to make records. But I am just, I’m really in that sort of frustrated place where I’d love to have it out and for it to be sort of, you know, we have that sort of childish ‘look what I did’ excitement about it. We’re straining at the leash.
I have heard it already, and it’s exquisite, I really do like it. I know a lot of people who are waiting to hear it.
Oh, great, good.
So, you’ve just answered about 4 questions on my list here…(laughing)
No, no, that’s fine. So that’s how you came to Connecticut to record the album. You chose that place, I assume, because that was convenient for everyone in that short time period?
Yeah, that’s where Peter’s studio is. He has a studio on the 3rd floor of his house in Bridgeport. And I suppose America’s always held a certain romance for me, and people are sort of, sometimes, a bit baffled by it, but just the act of going there and traveling the States and going to places like Bridgeport, which on the surface don’t have a whole lot going on. I would imagine making a record in New York City would have a lot more distraction. But even the act of going to the diner, stuff like that, going to the liquor store holds certain romantic notions. So it was kind of, uh, suburban America in its sort of purest form.
So, the album’s not out until June, but you have put out a couple of songs on Soundcloud already.
‘Starlings Over Brighton Pier’ (video here) and ‘Careful What You Wish For’ (stream here), if I’m right?
Yeah, that’s right, yeah.
Have you had a pretty good response to those so far?
I think so, I mean it’s hard to know how people like to consume their music these days. So, I don’t know, it seems like a pretty easy way of getting it out there and for people to pass it around. You know, there was no CDs needed to be printed and again it was part of that idea of sort of not holding stuff for too long. We put out ‘Starlings’ pretty much as soon as we finished it, and I think we’ll put out a few more. There’s sort of, you know, proper, old school singles that are going to be serviced to radio next. It annoys some people, I know, when you leak songs sort of slowly like that, they prefer to hear the record all in one go and for it to have that sort of…have an identity that’s sort of built up by the collection of songs. That’s something that I think we still hold dear, I know it’s a pretty old school notion that an album has an identity and a feeling that’s cohesive in some way and that the song sequencing matters, and even the gaps between songs. As you put a record together, you agonize over stuff like that. But it’s not really how most people consume music anymore, it’s, you know, single songs flicking around from playlist to playlist. I do that myself. I used to love the idea that of when I’d get a record from a band or an artist that I love, of putting it on in a darkened room, really loud, and lying on the floor. I rarely do that sort of singular act of listening to music anymore.
I am sort of an album person myself. I would have preferred to hear the whole thing through, which I now have, but will there be any more teasers like that before the album is released?
Yeah, the first single will be a song called ‘The End is Nigh’.
I wondered if that would be the one. I was thinking about this compared to Bloodless Coup, the single was obvious on that album, ‘Velcro’. On this one, it was a little less obvious. How did you come to choose that?
I think it’s…(laughing) I don’t really know what makes a single, to be honest. We talk to the people who service our stuff to radio, and they felt it was the most likely to get played, and I bow to them, to be honest. There are probably songs I’d prefer, personally, on the record, but I think it ticks all the boxes.
I think, yeah, that song was a little bit Springsteen-ish, it sort of made me think of that.
Yeah, hopefully that’ll be a good single, I just, when I listened through the album, I was thinking about the track sequencing too. Was that important to you as you put it together, did you put it in this order deliberately?
Yes, and it sort of happened pretty organically. Often these things are done, almost by fucking spreadsheet, where after the fact, everyone sort of puts their preferred orders and we sort of aggregate stuff, and fight, and it eventually comes out through some sort of algorithm, whereas with this one, we started listening to the stuff as we were recording it, you know after a day’s work in the studio, we’d go downstairs and have a few drinks and listen to what we had done, and as the songs sort of built up, they just seemed to fall into this order for some reason.
It does have kind of a nice flow to it. Is it agonizing to go back and listen to your own work like that?
Not at all, no, I really enjoyed it. I generally do listen to stuff pretty intensely around the time of making it and in the kind of immediate aftermath. It’s quite a different approach to sequencing I think we’ve done, in that the most ‘pop’ or raucous number is the last song. With most of the other records, it’s been the opposite, it’s been a sort of a gentle closer. That just felt right, I don’t know. (laughing) I think it matters, but most people probably don’t.
The songs ended up flowing pretty nicely. When I first listened, it seemed like kind of an eclectic grouping of songs, you’ve done some different things, stylistically, than I’ve heard you do before.
OK, good. I think a lot of that was down to Thomas. Thomas was, effectively, another band member in the studio. Of all of his, well, I won’t say all, I don’t know him that long, but anything I’ve seen him do, I’ve seen him play with say Antony and the Johnsons, or The National, or Rufus Wainwright, and in Ireland, and I think they’ve made it to the States, he plays with a group called The Gloaming, which is like, I suppose an Irish trad supergroup with him sort of skewing it in a more interesting way. He just…his choices of notes to play at certain times of the song are very distinctive and very…they add quite a…
A little bit of a different flavor.
Yes. Peter would say that he “brings the sad,” in his sort of, the choice of clusters he plays. He’s an amazing musician. He sort of arranged a lot of the brass, which kind of features quite heavily on the record, and that’s quite a sort of defining thing as well.
Yeah, and there was a lot of different percussion, and a lot of keyboard, a lot of piano.
A lot of piano, yeah, a lot of the songs were born on the piano, most of the songs were born on the piano. And the sort of, very naïve sort of repeating motifs that they would have been born around are still there and are still the sort of focus of the song, like with a song called ‘Careful What You Wish For’ or ‘A Thousand Little Downers’, those sort of opening piano motifs were things I came up with here at home or, uh, I can’t really work a lot at home anymore because I’ve got two small kids, so I’ll borrow or rent studios around town or using sort of rehearsal spaces in town. And I have, like, essentially my phone to record a lot of these sort of initial moments, and a lot of that stuff actually, sort of still made it through to the final record.
It’s a different sound for you, it’s a lot less synthetic-sounding.
Yeah, good, good. I’m glad. We were sort of, pretty, again, that was, I suppose, part of the ‘Chop Chop’ mentality, where we would…shrink the palette, was the mantra, often. Ensuring that the record was, that we would sort of be disciplined about sticking to a much narrower palette and get back to, I suppose, our roots in a more, sort of, purist or traditional way—guitar, bass, drums, piano, singing. I don’t know, I feel it’s, I mean I think I’ve always been sort of most proud or excited about our most recent work, but this is, I feel…we didn’t try so hard this time, I think, as in the past, we may have got a little distracted by the new toys, and with this, it feels like we didn’t, and we didn’t feel like we needed to.
Stay tuned for part 2 to post tomorrow!